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Money in the Pre-Industrial World: Bullion, Debasements and Coin Substitutes

Author(s):Munro, John H.
Reviewer(s):Allen, Martin

Published by EH.Net (November 2012)

John H. Munro, editor, Money in the Pre-Industrial World: Bullion, Debasements and Coin Substitutes. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012. xi + 225 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84893-230-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Martin Allen, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

Money in the Pre-Industrial World is the brainchild of John H. Munro, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto, who for many years has been one of the leading figures in the field of monetary history. In this volume Munro has brought together an important collection of essays on his subject, which is based upon papers given at the XVth World Economic History Congress at the University of Utrecht in 2009.

Munro himself contributes a major paper on coinage debasements in England and the Low Countries and a typically magisterial introduction summing up the themes of the book?s ten chapters, which largely focus upon the period up to 1800. He identifies three basic themes: international supplies of bullion, precious-metal coinages and their debasements, and substitutes for precious-metal money. Bullion and precious-metal coins had a crucial role in the development of international trade between Europe and Asia, which would not have been possible without massive movements of gold and silver eastwards. Silver coinage was the predominant means of exchange in the domestic economies of medieval Europe, but it was vulnerable to debasements, which reduced its weights or the fineness of its metal, or both. Munro identifies two kinds of debasement: aggressive and defensive. Aggressive debasements altered the coinage to increase mint profits for fiscal purposes, particularly in wartime, and defensive debasements were primarily intended to protect the coinage by making the prices offered by the mints for bullion more competitive. Debasements might provide low-value coins useful as small change, but Munro rejects the suggestion that this was their usual intention.

Munro argues that the inflationary effects of debasements were usually less than any change in the bullion content of the coinage, and this point is powerfully supported by Peter Spufford?s analysis of debasements in England in the 1540s and the Netherlands in the 1480s, in Chapter 4. Spufford argues that debasements could have beneficial effects in stimulating export trade and reducing consumption of imported goods. The maintenance of a strong, undebased currency could become increasingly difficult when large quantities of debased currencies were being imported from elsewhere, as Jos? Antonio Mateos Royo demonstrates in his discussion (in Chapter 7) of the? failure of successive royal administrations and parliaments in seventeenth-century Aragon to agree on a policy of debasement. In 1609 the Dutch Republic successfully dealt with the import of foreign coinage by establishing the Amsterdam Wisselbank, where all foreign merchants were obliged to deposit their money in bank accounts as fixed-value guilders. Hermann van der Wee?s account of the Wisselbank in Chapter 5 shows that this ?bank money? quickly achieved a major role in trade, in the Netherlands and internationally. The Wisselbank did not issue banknotes or manage a public debt, unlike the Bank of England in late seventeenth-century England, but the English approach to the maintenance of a sound currency had its disadvantages, as Nicholas Mayhew demonstrates in Chapter 6. Mayhew?s comparison of the quantities of silver struck by the London mint, hallmarked as plate, and exported by the East India Company between 1600 and 1800 documents the decline in the mint?s output caused by a failure to even slightly debase the coinage to offer a competitive price for silver.

Several essays in the volume show how coinages in precious metals could coexist with debased currencies or money substitutes. Kenneth W. Harl explores debasement in the Roman Empire in Chapter 2, showing that between 274 and 371 AD it had a fully functioning fiduciary currency of silver-coated coins of minimal silver content alongside its coinage of gold and silver, drawing instructive parallels between this system and twentieth-century economies. In Chapter 10, John S. Deyell elucidates the diversity of currency systems in India between c. 1200 and the 1570s, which included a combination of silver coins and cowrie shells in the Bengal Sultanate. In Mexico, denuded of its mined silver by Spanish exports, cacao beans kept their pre-Columbian function as small change, as Arturo Giraldez shows in Chapter 9. In Chapter 8, Renate Pieper discusses the relationship between supplies of Spanish-American silver and prices in Mexico, Castile and Amsterdam. The Spanish-American silver peso became a truly international currency, and the same can be said of the Venetian gold ducat and its derivatives, as Alan Stahl shows in Chapter 3.

This book can be thoroughly recommended to anybody interested in the subject. Unlike many collections of essays based upon conference proceedings it is more than the sum of its parts, with clearly defined coherent themes. Above all, it is a powerful defense of the monetary historians? belief that money is a major factor in world history. In today?s economic situation who can doubt it?

Martin Allen is a Senior Assistant Keeper in the Department of Coins and Medals at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. His recent publications include Mints and Money in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):Ancient
Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century